«Inter duas potestates»: The Religious Policy of Theoderic the Great

by Monika Ożóg (Author)
©2016 Monographs 271 Pages


This book discusses Theoderic the Great’s years of political activity, which coincided with the advent of a new era and were marked by features of two distinct civilizations. From the political and cultural viewpoint, he stood at the boundary between the Roman tradition and his Germanic origin. From the religious perspective, when he came to power in Italy at the Emperor’s behest, he found himself amid the conflict embroiling Rome and Constantinople at that time. It was the so-called Acacian schism centred around the issue of the recognition of the Council of Chalcedon (451) with its teaching on the two natures in Christ as well as the acknowledgement of Constantinople as the principal see of the Church in the East. Another ecclesiastical – and strictly Roman – problem noted in the Liber Pontificalis is the Laurentian schism, named after Lawrence, who was elected Pope on the same day as Symmachus.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1. Method
  • 2. The Liber Pontificalis as a primary source
  • 3. Current state of research
  • Chapter I The arian church of the Goths
  • 1. The Anti-Nicene Attitude of the Goths
  • 2. Theoderic’s “national” Arianism
  • Chapter II Liber Pontificalis 50 on Felix III (13 III 483–25 II 492)
  • 1. The Beginning of Theoderic’s Rule in Italy
  • 2. Theoderic and the “Acacian Schism” – a Prelude
  • Chapter III Liber Pontificalis 51 on Gelasius (1 III 492–21 XI 496)
  • Chapter IV Liber Pontificalis 52 on Anastasius II (24 XI 496–19 XI 498)
  • Chapter V Liber Pontificalis 53 on Symmachus (22 November 498–19 July 514)
  • 1. Theoderic and the “Laurentian schism” (I)
  • 2. Theoderic and the “Acacian schism” (I)
  • 3. The synod of 499
  • 4. Theoderic’s adventus to Rome
  • 5. Theoderic and the “Laurentian schism” (II)
  • 6. Symmachus’ legacy for the Church
  • 7. Theoderic and the “Laurentian schism” (III)
  • 8. Theoderic and the “Acacian” (II) and “Laurentian” (IV) schisms
  • 9. Relations with the bishops
  • 10. Theoderic’s encounter with Hilarius
  • Chapter VI Liber Pontificalis 54 on Hormisdas (20 VII 514–6 VIII 523)
  • 1. Hormisdas’ attempt to seek reconciliation with the East
  • 2. Theoderic and the “Acacian schism” (III)
  • 3. Negotiations on the consulship for 519(?)
  • 4. Theoderic’s policy towards the Jews
  • Chapter VII Liber Pontificalis 55 on John I (13 VIII 523–18 V 526)
  • Chapter VIII Liber Pontificalis 56 on Felix IV (12 VII 526–22 IX 530)
  • Chapter IX Religious aspects in the edict of Theoderic
  • 1. The Authorship of the Edict
  • 2. Ius asyli
  • 3. De heredibus clericorum
  • 4. Interdictio sacrificii ritu pagano
  • 5. Violatio sepulcri
  • Conclusions
  • Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Index of People
  • Index of Places

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The present book is a revised and enlarged English translation of the Polish edition, published by Wydawnictwo WAM, Cracow, in late 2012, which served as the basis for the fulfilment of the requirements for my post-doctoral degree in Ancient History.

I would like to extend my thanks to the reviewer of this study, Professor Jerzy Strzelczyk (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan), who is an outstanding expert in the history of the Goths, for his valuable comments and positive publishing review. I would also like to thank Professor Marek Wilczyński (Pedagogical University of Cracow) for his valuable text regarding the thesis below, due to whom I could correct the flaws that were inevitable in the Polish edition. Words of gratitude and appreciation are also due to Professor Henryk Pietras SJ (Pontifical Gregorian University, Roma) for his constant encouragement to focus on the study of this subject.

Last but not least, I would like to say ‘thank you’ to my husband, Kazimierz Sebastian, for his presence, my children, Kacper and Sabina Zuzanna, for their patience, and my parents, for their help and assistance in everyday duties.

I am also very thankful to all those who cannot be stated here by name, but who contributed to the creation of this book by their help, patience and, most of all, by their kindness.

And this point I can only express my hope that this book will make a modest contribution to the body of the scholarly publications devoted to the figure of Theoderic the Great.

All translations of source texts that are not marked by name come from myself and the translation of this thesis.

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The period following the fall of the Western Roman Empire was a very specific time in Europe’s history. In the West, Catholic Christianity had been gradually becoming a privileged religion, with the consolidation of the metropolitan structure of the Western Church and the growing authority of the Church of Rome. It was then, between the 5th and 6th century that the subsequent powers started to evolve. Among those entities, the newly founded civilitas in Italy came under the authority of Theoderic, a descendant of the Amali family, one of the more powerful rulers in Late Antiquity who would come to set the stage for the advent of a new era. He was born ca. 452/3, the son of Theodemir and Ereleuva. At the age of eight, he was sent to Constantinople, where he would spend ten years at the emperor Leo I’s court. The time at the capital provided him with the opportunities to receive some education and learn new skills. He considered the acquisition of his first dominion, the city of Singidunum (Belgrade) as the beginning of his reign, but he would formally assume the power in the Ostrogoth state only after his father’s death in 474. The seizure of Ravenna by the Ostrogoths and the subsequent death of Odoacer marked the founding of the Ostrogoth kingdom in Italy (493). King Theoderic died on 26 August 526 at Ravenna.

In one of his letters addressed to the emperor, Pope Gelasius, whose four-year-long pontificate took place during the reigns of the emperor Anastasius and Theoderic the Great, made reference to a fact that he held to be obvious: “Venerable Emperor, there are two [authorities] whose rule is supreme in this world: the authority of the holy papacy and the royal power.”1 In this case, “royal” would signify as much as “imperial.” Regardless of the specific pontiffs and emperors at a given time, the king of the Ostrogoths had to cope with the situation arising from this precarious position between the two great domains of authority, hence the first part of the title of the present book, inter duas potestates. All the measures and actions undertaken by the king had to take into account the existence of these two centres of power, i.e., the See of Rome and the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. It would be of particular relevance to Theoderic’s religious policy in view of the increasingly significant social and political role of the bishops of Rome, while the emperor at Constantinople considered himself ← 9 | 10 → to be the supreme head of the Church (and was acknowledged as such). I have attempted to show how the king would make efforts to succeed in taking advantage of the more or less evident conflicts of interest between the two centres of authority. It should be noted that the present study does not intend to depict the socio-economic position of Rome during the pontificates of the popes in question, to provide a biographical account of Theoderic’s life and achievements, as all of these subjects have already been well discussed in a number of very good scholarly publications. I believe there is no reason to reiterate the contents that can be easily found elsewhere.

Another noteworthy, and crucially important, factor is the king’s Arian faith, regarded as the Goths’ “national” religion and an integral element of their identity. Arianism placed Theoderic in opposition to the emperor and the pope, but, on the other hand, it would provide him with a neutral stance in relation to the disputes between the two. The king endeavoured to buttress his political position by forming an Arian coalition of Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Burgundians, consolidating this project with several marriages between the women of his family (notably, his daughters and sisters) and his allies.

Significantly, Theoderic would not take action against Catholic Christianity, and his Arian faith would not deter him from visiting Rome or maintaining good relations with the popes. In many of his appointment letters and other documents he would speak against religious conflicts and persecutions that erupted between the Arian Goths and Catholic Romans, apparently contrary to the ruler’s will. It is often in this context that the argument of the exemplary religious tolerance prevailing in Theoderic’s kingdom would be raised, even though it is anachronistic as it seems that the actual purpose of this tolerant religious policy would be his concern for preserving the status quo and the proper balance among the Catholic Romans, Arian Goths, and Jews with their rights affirmed by many emperors in the past.

In order to address the question of Theoderic’s involvement in the religious affairs of his state and his relations (as an Arian) with Christians and followers of other religions, it is necessary to take into consideration which political and cultural aspects engendered that interest and determined the prospects for his actions. Moreover, to what extent could Theoderic’s methods of exercising his authority have been conditioned by his affiliation with the Gothic traditions or, possibly, by the expectations of the Roman population of Italy and the imperial court circles of Constantinople? The coincidence of so many currents of culture and political circumstances in the broader context of this protagonist and the contemporary events is a particularly complex phenomenon. ← 10 | 11 →

In the preface to his book published in 2005, M. Vitiello refers to the need for a more exhaustive study, despite many scholarly publications dedicated to the period in question.2 It appears that the Liber Pontificalis with its biographies of the popes whose pontificates were contemporaneous with Theoderic’s reign, from Felix III3 (483–492) to Felix IV (526–530) could serve as the key source in the light of which all the other extant literary evidence could be discussed. The authors (author) of this source were concerned, perhaps more than anyone else, with the impact of the secular authorities on religious matters, taking note of generous concessions made by the rulers as well as instances of the suffering inflicted on the faithful. To put it briefly, the LP is a highly biased source, which, paradoxically, is exactly the reason it could be used as a sort of a good “guide” through the period. It is certainly true that some events may change the course of history, but such a process could be even more influenced by specific accounts of those occurrences (and the more biased they are, the more effective they may prove to be).

In consequence, I would like to take a closer look at the contents of the Liber Pontificalis with the aim of discussing all the records relating to Theoderic as well as the differences in relation to the other relevant sources, drawing conclusions on what is absent in the work. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that this source is not an ordinary chronicle, as it conveys a definitely “ideological” message designed to communicate a specific view of Theoderic, and the contemporary popes, to the posterity. Another significant argument in favour of this particular source is the fact that it is often ignored in the research on Theoderic; for example, the leading prosopography makes no reference to the Liber Pontificalis in the section on the king.4

I have chosen to use the name “Theoderic” throughout the present study (the variant “Theodoric” can be found in many publications as well),5 because of the presence of this form of the name in two of the most important sources, ← 11 | 12 → Cassiodorus and the Excerpta Valesiana. Jordanes, who wrote his Getica on the basis of Cassiodorus’ work, changed the form of the name to “Theodoric,” but the reason for his choice remains unknown. The Greek form used in Procopius’ work is Θευδεριχος, and the king would use this form of the name himself, as attested by the multiplum of Senigalla, bearing an inscription with his image.6

1. Method

I have chosen the Liber Pontificalis as the primary source to be followed, which has necessarily dictated a certain measure of dependence upon this particular work. In consequence, I proceed to discuss Theoderic’s decisions and actions in the chronological order of the individual pontificates, even though this method yields chapters of very different, at times widely varying, lengths. However, it would depend on the lengths of the individual pontificates and the weight of the issues attended to and resolved by the king in agreement, or with no co-operation, with the popes. It results in the chapter arrangement in the order of the successive pontificates: II – Felix III; III – Gelasius; IV – Anastasius II; V – Symmachus; VI – Hormisdas; VII – John I; VIII – Felix IV.

Assigning this pivotal role to the Liber Pontificalis (with certain exceptions as mentioned below) has imposed some limitations on the author of the present study. For instance, some of the crucial problems related to the king’s religious policy recurring throughout his 30-year-long reign have to reappear in as many as several chapters. At a first glance, it could give the reader an impression of the presence of some unnecessary repetitions in the course of the chapters, which could have very likely been avoided if the structure of the book had been oriented on the particular problems rather than on the pontificates. On the other hand, Theoderic would undertake to deal with the same, or very similar, issues differently depending on the circumstances originating from the reign of each individual emperor or the pontificate of each individual pope.

It has been my intention to discuss various aspects of Theoderic’s politics inter duas potestates in their specific, historically conditioned forms. Besides, selecting ← 12 | 13 → any other source as the primary one would have possibly created a different set of limitations.

Apart from the material and chapter arrangement concept drawn from the Liber Pontificalis, the present work contains two chapters that seem to be of particular importance in the broader context of the subject-matter, but these questions could not have been adequately discussed on the basis of the Liber Pontificalis alone, namely the Arian faith of the Goths in general, and of Theoderic in particular (ch. I) and the so-called Edict of Theoderic, which is very likely a document of Ostrogoth provenance. The edict serves as the source basis for the final chapter (ch. IX); in my opinion, the important contents of this document, such as many precepts concerning religious issues (ius asyli, de heredibus clericorum, interdictio sacrifici ritu pagano, violatio sepulcri) could not have been omitted in a comprehensive account of this topic. As I have pointed out, the question of the authorship of the LP continues to be a subject of scholarly research, hence it has been necessary to include a section dealing with this topic.

Theoderic’s religious policy is best reflected in his approach to the “Laurentian” and “Acacian” schisms. Although the former one may be regarded as a controversy within the Church of Rome, the political dispute between the followers and opponents of a reconciliation with Constantinople (at odds with Rome amid the so-called “Acacian schism”) could be clearly seen at its inception. It would be difficult to approach these two schisms separately, with no attention to the chronology of the events, in the context of a discussion of Theoderic’s religious policy. For this reason, I have clearly marked out the individual stages of these two largely overlapping controversies.

During the research work done in preparation for the writing of this study, I had several opportunities to present some of the conclusions as part of articles and conference papers, with the reservation that they would form part of a more comprehensive treatment of the subject. The information concerning such publications and papers can be found in footnotes.7

2. The Liber Pontificalis as a primary source

It is not my intention to suggest that the Liber Pontificalis could be treated as a fundamental source for the research into the figure of Theoderic for every single aspect of the study. I shall only make an attempt to justify why I have chosen to give prominence to this particular collection of popes’ biographies in the present ← 13 | 14 → work dedicated to Theoderic’s religious policy. Of course, my choice to focus on the LP does not mean that the other sources relevant to the subject have been disregarded or their importance diminished.

It would be simply stating the obvious that all sources are biased and it is the historian’s duty to identify the truth. The principle would also hold true for the sources on Theoderic and the Goths. As will be shown in a presentation of the other sources, the authors of the documents under consideration had their own likes and dislikes, and it would have an impact on how the events were to be described. For instance, Jordanes’ Getica, which is basically a version of Cassiodorus’ History of the Goths, represents a view of the events that puts Theoderic (Cassiodorus’ patron) in a favourable light. A similar account can be found in the anonymous Excerpta Valesiana, at least up to a certain point, as in the depiction of the final years of Theoderic’s reign the author shows so much indignation at the Ostrogoth ruler’s actions and offers such a radically different appraisal of his conduct that it would seem to imply the existence of two different authors involved in the composition of this source.

In view of the fact that the main theme of the present study is Theoderic’s religious policy, it would stand to reason to rely on an overtly ecclesiastical source that offers an account of the king’s attitudes and actions from the perspective of the Roman Curia. It is easy to see that the papacy would have regarded the political activity of the Arian king with a certain measure of reserve.8 For this reason, a source composed within the realm of the papal influence may serve as a counterpoint to the clearly biased sources dependent on Cassiodorus’ work.

For many centuries, Damasius and Jerome had been credited with the authorship of the Liber Pontificalis. Among various attributions that would follow, the most significant was the 16th-century identification of the anonymous author with Anastasius Bibliothecarius, which would be convincingly disproved in the 19th century.9 The question of the authorship of the LP continues to be a subject of debate to this day. Passing over the historical deliberations, I would begin with the modern editions by Luis Duchesne10 and Theodore Mommsen.11

According to Duchesne, the original work was written in Rome ca. 530, but it would survive only in the form of two epitomes, which he named Abrégé Fèlicien ← 14 | 15 → and Abrégé Cononien, whereas Theodor Mommsen would refer to them, respectively, as Epitome Feliciana and Epitome Cononiana. Both of them use the abbreviations F, for Felix IV (530), and K, for Conon (687), marking the pontificates that constitute the end period for each version.12 Apart from these two texts, there exists a version known as p, which would be, according to Duchesne, a second recension of the first version, composed shortly after 530, with as many as several decades missing, and subsequently resumed and continued until the pontificate of Adrian II, i.e., up to 872.13 Among the manuscripts that preserve the text in its fragments, perhaps the most noteworthy one is the so-called Fragmentum Laurentianum, extant in the 6th-century manuscript XXII of Verona.14 This source features the Symmachus note and enumerates several of his successors, with the same numerals as in the other copies of the LP. It may have possibly been some parallel Liber Pontificalis version, yet with an essentially different composition; contrary to the other surviving recensions, which would be definitely supportive of Symmachus and critical of Laurence, it clearly represents the interests of those in favour of the latter figure.15

On the basis of the extant epitomes, Duchesne offered his own reconstruction of the first recension. However, to embrace this nonetheless very arbitrary effort, it would be necessary to agree with some of the fundamental assumptions made by this eminent scholar: firstly, the F and K are indeed the epitomes of the first recension and, secondly, a compilation of the contents drawn from the both texts may impartially reflect the original text.

Likewise, Mommsen assumed that the F and K are summaries of the first recension, but dating from the 7th century.16 The arrangement of his edition, with juxtapositions of lections in the individual manuscript groups, differs from that of Duchesne. However, it does not seem to provide much information concerning the primary subject of this study, where details on Theoderic’s religious policy would be of greater use than various examples of papal foundations.

Approaching the question from an archaeologist’s perspective that would presuppose particular interest in the vestiges of the material culture as depicted in the Liber Pontificalis, Herman Geertman arrives at the conclusions which are opposite to the propositions put forward by Duchesne and Mommsen, and argues ← 15 | 16 → that the F and K are in fact summaries, or readaptations, of the text known as p, resulting in its elevation to the rank of the original.17 Geertman’s argumentation has been revised by Lidia Capo, who cites the example of the biographical note on Symmachus and asserts that the F would appear to have been earlier than p and there is no ground for seeking a different “archetype” for the two epitomes, as the F would fulfil all the formal requirements for the role.18 Therefore, the F would be the original first recension, K – a reworking dependent on the F, but composed with the use of some new documents, whereas the so-called second recension (alternatively, the second edition), i.e., the text known as p, would have been written shortly after the F, in an attempt to make a synthesis of the contents from that work and the K. It should be noted that the text of the K relied in its “summarized” account of the later developments, which are beyond the scope of the present book, on the basis of the p.19

Another important point is the question of the author and the objective of the Liber Pontificalis. Duchesne draws a hypothetical link between the origin of the source and the popes’ portraits from the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura, the work dating back to the time of Symmachus’ pontificate and the “Laurentian schism.”20 Until as late as the fire of 1823, an image of Laurence had been included in the gallery of the popes’ portraits inside that basilica church, apparently a testimony to the significant influence of his followers at the time.21 It seems that there has been a general consensus on the ecclesiastical provenance of the text; nonetheless, this product of the Lateran milieu is not an official document of the Holy See. The authors had drawn on the archival records, showing much concern for the clarity of language and ensuring that the text would be more accessible to broader audiences.22

These conclusions would suggest that the F text could be regarded as the primary source on the years of Theoderic’s reign. It reflects the views close to the Roman Curia, to the circles satisfied with the king’s resolutions in the vital matters such as the controversy resulting from the contested election of Symmachus and Laurence, the dispute between the Roman Curia and the senators over the alienation of church property (settled in 507), and the “Acacian schism.” All these issues have been discussed in the present work. ← 16 | 17 →

This contentment of the milieu of the Liber Pontificalis may have contributed to the distinctly biased and partial nature of the source. As it appears, this would seem to provide just another argument for the choice of the Liber Pontificalis as the primary source, namely the existence of what could be called an alternative version, the Fragmentum Laurentianum, very critical of Symmachus as well as the king’s support he had received, and harbouring suspicions of intrigue and corruption. In terms of attention and interest, I have decided to give it the same treatment as the text of the F, which has been complemented at some places with the details from the p, even though one could not fail to notice at times that this particular document would be of a markedly libellous nature.

The Liber Pontificalis text as quoted throughout the book comes in most part from the recension known as F; even if the current or future research should prove it would differ from the text of the original recension, it would still be the closest thereto. At certain points, it has been necessary to take note of the variants from the various manuscripts, in particular where it may be of significance in terms of a more adequate understanding or a better depiction of Theoderic’s religious policy. All the citations from the second recension are marked with square brackets; I have also used the paragraphs numbering as per the same version.

To date, the Liber Pontificalis has not received very much attention in Polish academic literature. A noteworthy effort in the field is a new edition and Polish translation of the source, prepared by the editors of the series Synodi et Collectiones Legum as part of a research grant by courtesy of the National Centre of Science.

All the contents drawn from the Liber Pontificalis have been verified through juxtaposing them with the other relevant sources, with particular emphasis on the earliest works such as Jordanes’ Getica and the Excerpta Valesiana. For the dating of the events under discussion, I have decided to rely on a majority of the contemporary chronicles, especially Cassiodorus, Victor of Tunnuna, and Marcellinus Comes, as well as several church histories. Any other sources pertinent to the present subject have been taken into consideration in proportion to their presumable credibility and relevance to the topic.

3. Current state of research

The existence of a very extensive amount of scholarly literature on the history of Goths and Ostrogoths attests to the enduring popularity of this theme.23 Perhaps ← 17 | 18 → the most outstanding expert in the field is Herwig Wolfram, of whose work Geschichte der Goten (1979)24 there have been several editions and translations. Over the course of years, the Austrian scholar has made certain modifications in his views on the origin of the Goths, which would testify to his continued commitment to exploring this question. On the other hand, the renowned methodologist Walter Goffart, the author of Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418–584: The Techniques of Accommodation,25 takes a somewhat critical approach to Wolfram’s views.

Finally, let us also mention a considerable body of publications dedicated to Theoderic and the related topics. He has been figured prominently in many works published in the 19th century26 and the interwar period,27 as well as monographic studies28 and books for the general public.29 Furthermore, Theoderic has been pictured as a protagonist of legends30 and a generous patron of arts.31

Some of the authors have concentrated on depictions of the ruler in the sources dating from before the year 1000, as featured in several articles32 and an extensive synthesis by Andreas Goltz entitled Barbar – König – Tyrann. Das Bild Theoderichs des Großen in der Überlieferung des 5. bis 9. Jahrhunderts.33 The author has ← 18 | 19 → already dealt with the religious aspects of Theoderic’s politics in his M.A. thesis (unpublished).34

The figure of Theoderic, at times depicted in negative terms as well, would continue to remain popular through the Middle Ages. Notably, as Dietrich von Bern, he was a protagonist of many German and Icelandic poems, ballads, and sagas.35


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Liber Pontificalis Acacian Schism Laurentian Schism Edict of Theoderic Arian Church
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 271 pp.

Biographical notes

Monika Ożóg (Author)

Monika Ożóg holds a post-doctoral degree (habilitation) in ancient history and art history. Her researches deal with the rule of Ostrogoths in Italy, early Christian art and the legislation of magical practices in the first century.


Title: «Inter duas potestates»: The Religious Policy of Theoderic the Great
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